Friday, May 12, 2006



Cobbling together a case for metaverse as social change tool...

Can a virtual world change the real one?  Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center has an extensive post stemming from a short presentation I gave at the Metaverse Roadmap conference we attended last weekend.  That Saturday, I gave the summary of a Roadmap breakout session, where a group of geekishly-inclined media folks described our vision for the state of online worlds in 2016.  Working with their notes and some of my mine, we envisioned a future where the metaverse was the new operating system, an equal contributor to popular culture, an integral element in the world economy, and so entirely woven into the Internet that it would depict everything we knew about the physical world as a topography of interactive 3D data.   This last point was perhaps the most optimistic, because, we argued, the metaverse would create total transparency across the globe and keep us informed on the health of the planet and its peoples.  There was a virtual Camp Darfur in Second Life now, I mentioned by example; it's primarily a resource site to raise awareness of the ongoing genocide in Sudan.  Ten years from now, I suggested, places like that could easily incorporate real world data in real time.

Ethan (brilliant in a brusque-but-avuncular sort of way) took great exception to that last point.  Or in his words, "I lost it."

Later on, in a post that's both thoughtful and gracefully forceful, he explains the strength of his reaction:

The reason Second Life bugs me is not the fact that it slows my computer to a crawl, that most of my fellow characters are impossibly thin girls with overinflated breasts, or that most of the activity of the world seems to rotate around real estate and sex. (It reminds me of Reagan’s America, without the cocaine.) No, it’s the cyberutopianism.

I love the Reagan line, but considering the popularity of virtual magic mushrooms and artificial life pot plants, not to mention the hot tubs or rampant free love, I'd say Second Life usually seems more like Jerry Brown's California.  But that's just me.

But his point about cyberutopianism is well-taken, especially coming as it does from a man who's been to real life refugee camps in Africa (he told me later), and as a human rights activist who's been exasperated at the difficulty to get any first-hand data on Darfur-- let alone create an accurate simulation of a camp inside it.  (For the record, when I made this point, I was thinking of how satellite imagery of Darfur's razed villages could be depicted in the metaverse, even when first-hand reporting was not possible, but it's my fault for not spelling that out.)  In any case, Ethan's point wasn't to denigrate the effort that went into creating SL's Camp Darfur, or the superheroes who now protect it against griefers-- it's to wonder how important such an installation is in the hierarchy of the here and now, against an ongoing genocide:

The web, now twelve years old, will help draw attention to people affected by these situations, improve reporting and give us voices from people on the ground… though we’ll still need professional journalists, real-world NGOs and, possibly, military forces to intervene in situations like Darfur. It’s not that the metaverse doesn’t matter. It’s just not a very high priority yet.

And that point is well-taken, too, though it does make you wonder what role all those who aren't in an NGO or the Marine Expeditionary Force can play.  (Beyond contacting their Congresspeople and the media, and seeking other traditional avenues of redress.)  Still, I agree that the metaverse as a tool for social change is down on a ways on the priority list-- perhaps on par with starting a website that promotes genocide awareness.  (Even if Camp Darfur attracted just five visitors every hour, it'd be on a parity with most political blogs, which are lucky to attract over a thousand unique visitors per week.)

But while it's surely not a high priority, I do want to make the case that virtual worlds like Second Life should at least be seen as a medium priority for effecting social and political progress-- certainly in the next few years.  A couple rough, still-in-development arguments for that after the break.


Second Life as Immersive Blogging:  At the moment, the SL user base of 215,000 approaches the popularity of top political blogs; by the end of this year, it'll be close to half a million users.  Of course, unlike a blog, most Residents aren't coming in-world to engage in politics.  But the unique user-creation tools of SL make a kind of 3D blogging possible-- quickly responding to the day's events with images, audio, video, and builds, in a way that can be experienced by other Residents in the same space.  We saw this perhaps most vividly during the Katrina disaster last year, when Residents shared photographs from New Orleans and other ravaged areas, and created memorial candles for the victims, some of whom were SL members directly hit by the storm. I call this "immersive blogging", borrowing the first term from the world of VR research and game development, to capture the quality of being surrounded by experience in a way that shifts the experience from passive watcher to embodied participant.  I'm not an academic, and the folks at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab are the ones to best speak on the phenomenon, but as a reporter and a participant myself, it's my sense that this shifting effect is genuine.  See yourself as an avatar, see the graphical 3D world around you as a true space-- and see the people you're interacting with as people you know, and can have a moral emotional investment in.  Which leads to my second argument:

Embodied Interaction becomes Active Engagement:  Unlike blogging and other Net-based interaction, the quality of a virtual world "punctures the fourth wall", removing the barrier between medium and participant, and translates into a willingness to engage that mediums before it do not usually encourage.  Again, I'm not an academic, so this is my inference based on anecdote.  I saw this phenomenon during Katrina, when Residents who didn't know them personally before took great risks and made significant sacrifices to help the storm's refugees.  More recently, of course, I reported on how roleplaying heroes quickly morphed into something like the real thing, in the effort to protect Camp Darfur.  As Ethan says in his post, it's a lot easier to guard a virtual refugee camp, than shield the real camps.  But I think that misses another point: where there were once gamers, there are now nascent activists, struggling to do something, anything, on an issue that many hadn't previously given much thought.

These cases are small and not necessarily typical, but they're the kind of things that make me think that something like a lever to move the civic-minded is developing here.  My guess (and hope) is we'll see more of the phenomenon as the world expands, and as it expands, so too the glimmer of an influence on the real world.  Will it be enough to end genocide?  Certainly not now or any time soon.  But it's already been enough to improve international relations on a micro level.  And as it happens, there's an even better test case coming next month-- a Los Angeles political candidate is gambling that his virtual campaign headquarters in SL will help win him a seat on the City Council. 

In any case, I hope to see Ethan at next year's Metaverse Roadmap, so we can compare notes.  Maybe I'll be less optimistic.  Or maybe he'll think SL's less like Reagan's America.

Ethan's post is here-- read it all, and be sure to catch the comments section as well. 

Zero Grace has some thoughts on this conversation, too.


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» Virtual Darfur: Civic Engagement or Fake Activism? from The Click Heard Round the World
There has been an interesting debate going on between Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices and Hamlet at New World Notes. It’s a discussion centered around the Second Life virtual Darfur Camp built by several activists to highlight the plight of [Read More]

» Nonprofits and Second Life and Other Games from Beth's Blog
Susan Tenby from TechSoup demos the virtual TechSoup Office during the Netsquared Conference while Ruby Sinreich and Deborah Finn (Cyber-Yenta) blogged about it. (Blogger Wagner James Au who reports on Second Life is seated next to Susan.) The TechSoup... [Read More]

» Nonprofits and Second Life and Other Games from Beth's Blog
Susan Tenby from TechSoup demos the virtual TechSoup Office during the Netsquared Conference while Ruby Sinreich and Deborah Finn (Cyber-Yenta) blogged about it. (Blogger Wagner James Au who reports on Second Life is seated next to Susan.) The TechSoup... [Read More]

» In Second Life, a Virtual Darfur is Patrolled by a Virtual Green Lantern Corps from Opinio Juris
Having grown up on Green Lantern comics (and having one friend quip that she thinks that explains my becom... [Read More]


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Memory Harker

Now I've read (much of) Zuckerman's comments and your article, and so offer a few relevant comments myself, Hamlet.

And, sure, you are --- and always have been --- all boosterish regarding SL. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, and not that it doesn't also provide evidence of your intergrity, since you're no less gung-ho now than you were when you worked for the Lindens.)

And Zuckerman's also right about the basic need being to get the raw RL information OUT of Darfur (or sadly similar situations) in the first place.

But of course: How else to know to take necessary action?

But your point about the effectiveness of SL's 3-D immersion in providing an emotional, almost tangible connection with what's going on in remote (to so many) sections of the world ... your point is well-made and well-taken.

The experts and authorities, sure, their focus will be the raw data. But if general public response and support has ANY worth at all, then it will become imperative (if the 3-D, avatar-inhabited metaverse expands beyond its present, admittedly rarified, community) ... it will become imperative to present the data within that SL-ish environment.

Because, yes, goddamnit: "The quality of a virtual world punctures the fourth wall, removing the barrier between medium and participant, and translates into a willingness to engage that mediums before it do not usually encourage."

You carefully refer to that (quoted above) as anecdotal evidence. But how much anecdotal evidence is necessary (I concur, my friends concur, everyone I know that has stayed in SL for more than a few months concurs) before ... well, not before it's accepted as fact. (Because, hell, then religion would be equal to science and we may as well give up and just kiss the feet of the whole Intelligent Design crowd of idiots.)

But how many people need to experience "Active Enagagement via Embodied Interaction" before it's a viable, significant force?

When it comes to public awareness/action, it's all just a numbers game, isn't it? Like so much in this world.


But I think you're right that the 3-D immersive metaverse would INCREASE those numbers beyond whatever amount might be reached otherwise. That's not "utopian thinking," that's simply a fact.

(Although, yeah, I'm a mite cheerleaderish about SL, myself. Guilty as charged.)


Just my somewhat errant thoughts on this complex topic, Hammie ...

Keep up the good work!



I'm reading this and nodding my head all the way through.

I'm really excited about the way the internet and online communing is developing and evolving.

I can see some amazing shifts and changes in the world over the next 50 years. Driven by the transparency of the internet. The less walls it has and the more ways to pool our knowledge and interact with each other, regardless of where we are or who the more benefit will be derived from it.

It's exciting, I can't wait to see what unfolds...
It's an incredibly exciting time and I feel that things have yet to truly take off.


Hamlet, thank you for helping us illuminate the process behind Camp Darfur. I wish the timing had been better on the Metaverse Roadmap Summit.

As an educator and media producer I've been handed a very unique challenge; to design experiences that motivate people to take action on an issue that we'd rather forget about. It sucks being the one who tells kids what genocide is! Camp Darfur in SL is one piece of that story, an idealized displacement camp where everyone is protected by superheroes and has the food and care they need to survive. A hopeful place where people can rebuild.

We live on Better World Island because we believe that we need good examples to follow. We look for positive uplift and the best new solutions from around the globe. Our scouts are from five continents...they are accountants, artists, inventors and actors. Some have laid their lives on the line to protect the people of Darfur or others in their care. Some are in Africa now building an orphanage, others are planning large humanitarian efforts for later this year.

At the RL Camp Darfur in Los Angeles we took potatoes and made skull stamps. Students came by and dipped the potatoes in the paint ten times, each stamp representing 100 lives. By the end of that day 400 students memorialized 1000 people lost in Darfur. By the end of those five minutes those kids understood a scale of tragedy that they had not comprehended before.

I haven't figured out how to make these kind of experiences real in Camp Darfur SL yet....the videos walls are coming online next week and the Camp Darfur Comix tries to bridge the education gap for kids....but it's a meager start. We're two months in now. I'm so thankful we've had the support of the Green Lanterns and others who have been getting involved in SL and through RL advocacy in every corner of the globe.

You've hit on some very important points....I'll be sure to pass on the comix link for you soon. There's tremendous potential on remixing Second Life culture for youth education and we definitely welcome suggestions as we script and finetune Camp Darfur.


What seems to be getting lost in much of the back and forth in the blogosphere is that it's possible for both Hamlet and Ethan to be ... *hold your breath* ... right. I don't see either position being fundamentally incorrect. What I see are disconnects occurring at other levels. That's a shame since it puts people at odds who should be united.

As to how the technology can be better utilized in general so that it's usefulness is more apparent, I'd refer to something posted on RCommunication by Rebecca Mackinnon:

"The question we really ought to be focusing on is: how can citizens and professional journalists work together to create a better and more well-informed public discourse?"

I disagreed. Here's my response:

"I would phrase that differently. Perhaps to something like this: how can citizens and professional journalists work together to make well-informed public discourse fashionable?"

SL is becoming fashionable. And those interested in getting the word out might consider that it's not about educating people, it's about helping people educate themselves. Give people a reason to stop their own activities (which are their escape from life's difficulties) and make them want to learn. That's a tough order to fill, but it's the one that has to be placed imo.

Memory Harker

"To make well-informed public discouse fashionable."

Hee. Csven, I always suspected that Bruce Sterling was one of your meatspace alts!

No, but really, that's such a smart distinction you made above, and coincidentally following the reasoning behind Sterling's Viridian movement.

Yeah, we're all of us at some kind of crux right now. Let's just try to make sure it doesn't lead to crucifixion ...


"Hee. Csven, I always suspected that Bruce Sterling was one of your meatspace alts!"


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